Donald Trump’s pick to serve as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations is unlike any other previous nominee for the US-UN role. Kelly Knight Craft currently serves as the US Ambassador to Canada, a position she was conferred for the fact that she is a major Republican donor. Her family owns a major coal company with deep roots in Kentucky.
It is not at all unusual at all for Democratic or Republican administrations to reward major donors with plum ambassador roles. For better or worse that is part of US diplomatic tradition. But this is the first time that the UN ambassadorship is going to a major donor.
This sets up some interesting political dynamics that were on display during Ambassador Kelly Craft’s confirmation hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. On the line with me to discuss how Kelly Craft may fit in the role of UN Ambassador is Richard Gowan. He is the UN director for the International Crisis Group and recently wrote a piece in Politico examining some of the key debates and diplomatic dynamics that the next US Ambassador may face. He was also the lead contributor to a new Crisis Group report on the UN Security Council.
Coming into this job, Kelly Craft did not have much a foreign policy profile, particularly on issues relevant to the UN. This conversation provides a useful introduction to her and the issues into which she’ll be thrust.
One thing you hear from people who interacted with Kelly Craft in her previous post as Ambassador to Canada is that she is a decent and reasonable person to work with. There has been some criticism of her absences in Ottawa, but her staff in the embassy and Canadian officials found her likeable and approachable. She is also taking a lot from the Nikki Haley playbook, who was on the side of Trump and tough on the UN, but was still a moderate behind the scenes. Haley was very popular with Republicans. Craft knows many of the same folk, like Marco Rubio, so she is playing the same way towards the Senate. The question is, how influential is Craft in the era of Bolton and Pompeo?
Like Haley, both of them came to this hearing without much of a profile in foreign policy. I was interested to see Craft’s vision for US-UN relations, and she did not articulate, to my view, that vision at all in the context of that hearing.
That is broadly fair. The issue she emphasized in her testimony was her focus on humanitarian issues. She framed that as trying to spread the cost of UN humanitarian operations away from the US to other countries. Their humanitarian work is relatively uncontroversial, so it may be a big focus for her. Further, she did not expect to be in New York for very long. She implied she would only serve for the rest of the President’s current term.
Unlike any other US Ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft is in that role because she is a major Republican donor. Every single Republican seemed to know her well and lined up behind her. She will take up her post at the UN having this back door channel to key Republican law makers in the Senate.
Haley had good relations on the Hill as well. You are right to say that Craft is unusual as she plays an important funding role. That is interesting because no one is sure how much clout she will have with Washington. She may be a more significant political actor than some give her credit. She can go to Pence, Rubio, and McConnell.
One thing she may improve is being the UN’s Ambassador to the US for more skeptical audiences.
It won’t be long until Security Council ambassadors are invited to Kentucky for a bowl of fried chicken with McConnell. That “folksy diplomacy” is quite helpful for US-UN relations.
She did acknowledge a conflict of interest and stated she would recuse herself from conversations around coal and climate change because of her family’s investments in coal energy.
Craft did acknowledge that climate change was a man-made threat. In the past she has not been so outwardly clear. This was a significant concession. On the specific promise not to engage in negotiations involving coal, that was not substantively significant, but was a good point.
For the last six months, there has been no appointed US Ambassador to the UN. Can you describe the diplomatic context that she will enter?
It is a mess. The fact that there has been no full time, politically appointed representative has been a real problem. Diplomats liked working under Haley. Since she has left, the US-UN has lost a lot of leverage. For instance, in regular conversations about the ceasefire in Yemen, the US diplomats are frustrating their counterparts because they don’t have instructions. They do not know what Washington wants. The nature of power in the UN works so that if the US is not engaging, a lot of diplomacy just dies, especially in the Security Council.
Many people around the UN don’t even know the position of the US on Libya. Would installing a politically appointed ambassador improve such situations?
Not necessarily, the National Security Advisor, John Bolton, has much more influence than the US Ambassador to the UN. Bolton understands the UN very well, and will try to drive the majority of US policy in New York. However, I do think if it gets bad, Craft can go back to Pence or McConnell and insist that she needs a minimum to have the leeway to represent the US with dignity.
Are there areas you could foresee that Craft would be able to put her own stamp?
One interesting aspect of the confirmation hearing was that she talked about the Rohingya refugees and the need to assist them. It is possible she could also take up the Myanmar file in terms of attempting to find a way to improve the situations of those driven out of Myanmar. Haley found she was able to get stuff done on South Sudan and the Congo. If there is any hope of reaching peace agreements in Yemen, Craft could focus some energy on that.
Is there anything in the weeks to come that will illuminate what kind of ambassador she will be?
There are two and a half major tests for Craft on the horizon. The first is the roll out of the Middle East peace plan. If that plan drops, and it ignores the UN, then Craft will face an enormous amount of blowback. She is likely to face Security Council and General Assembly resolutions insisting on the continued validity of past resolutions on the two-state solution. She may have to cast a veto in the Security Council to block criticism of the US.
The second test is Iran. There are very few countries in the Security Council that are sympathetic to the US position on Iran. There is a real risk that Craft may have to justify US pressure on Iranians, which will be difficult.
The half test is something that could happen, but we do not know if/when it will, which is some sort of flare up of the Korean peninsula.